Jan Hus burned at the stake


Jan Hus was a pastor in Prague and noted reformer of the Bohemian church executed by the Council of Constance as much for his contentiousness and obstinacy as for his own teachings. A native Bohemian and doctoral candidate at the University of Prague, Hus was an heir to a long national tradition of reform. First, Bohemian reform movements had begun in earnest in the fourteenth century to contest clerical abuses and encourage lay piety, especially in the reception of the Eucharist. Second, the teachings of fourteenth century English reformer, John Wycliffe, had also found their way to Prague and bolstered popular views regarding the pope as the antichrist, a true church on earth that included only the predestined, and the reception of communion in both kinds–bread and wine. Hus inherited many of these positions and proclaimed them during his tenure as university pastor before being removed, spending the next two years in exile.

What Hus actually taught and whether it deserved recrimination remains a debated matter. He did not share the extreme opinions of Wycliffe against sacramental devotion or Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, but his criticism of church authority and heated polemical sermons that inveighed against simony and clerical immorality led to conflict with ecclesiastical and secular authorities. Fearing for the stability of his region, King Sigismund of Bohemia urged the resolution of the Hussite problem through the Council of Constance and offered Hus the promise of safe conduct in his travels. However, by the time of the reformer’s arrival at Constance, the situation had worsened. The teachings of Wycliffe had been condemned earlier that year and the council, riddled with tension over the resolution of the papal schism and with little success in reforming the church, needed to achieve one express goal of its convening: to defend the faith against the suspected heresy of the Bohemians. The council members participating in Hus’ trial, including Francesco Zabarella, Pierre d’Ailly, and Jean Gerson, were noted for their fairness and desire for unity. But Hus failed to sway them in the course of the trial due to his contentious manner and rambling explanations. He was finally defrocked and condemned to die.e in Southern Bohemia and then leaving for Constance.

On July 4, 1415, Hus’ sentence was carried out and he was burned at the stake. However, this did not resolve the Bohemian issue. After Hus’ death, they split into several competing groups, only one of them a conservative wing seeking unity with Rome. A second group, the Utraquists, continued their advocacy for reform of the church, including reception of the wine as the “other” (utraque) element in the Eucharist. A final coterie, the Taborites, was more radical, rejected doctrines such as transubstantiation and the priesthood, and advocated armed resistance to the authorities. The result was a Bohemian civil war from 1419 to 1431. Restored order would have to await the Council of Basel (1431-49), when a Hussite delegation was invited to defend their positions. The Compactata (1433) reached at Basel allowed for acceptance of moderate Hussite practices and a degree of autonomy for the Bohemiam church that remained until the seventeenth century.

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